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article imageFungus is devastating your morning cup of coffee

By Karen Graham     May 18, 2014 in Food
A tree-killing fungus that causes coffee rust, known scientifically as Hemileia vastatrix, has swept across Central America, attacking coffee trees and affecting production abroad. The disease spares no farms, reducing once healthy trees to wilted twigs.
The U.S. government has stepped in to help Central America's coffee farmers fight the disease and hold down the price of that morning cup of coffee. The disease has already caused more than $1.0 billion in damages across the region.
The price of some high-end coffees have gone up, especially the coffees made using the Arabica bean. The Arabica trees are especially susceptible to the rampant disease. To this end, Raj Shad, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development plans to announce on Monday a $5.0 million partnership with Texas A&M University's World Coffee Research center to try to eliminate the fungus.
Coffee rust at a farm in Cauca  southwestern Colombia. From the Two Degrees Up series of case studie...
Coffee rust at a farm in Cauca, southwestern Colombia. From the Two Degrees Up series of case studies on the effect of climate change on agriculture. Photo taken: Sept. 23, 2010.
Neil Palmer (CIAT) (CC BY-SA 2.0)
While the cost of a good cup of coffee is important, there are bigger and much better reasons to lend a hand in controlling the coffee rust disease. The greater concern is protecting the economic stability of the small farmers in the Central American region.
Most of the blander coffee consumed in the U.S. comes from Asian and other countries, while the richer and more expensive coffees come from the small, high-altitude farms in Central America. Because the farms are small, many of the farmers lack the money to buy the expensive fungicides, or lack the training and knowledge needed to plant in ways that avoid contamination.
And also, with the years of low coffee prices in the past, farmers could ill-afford to replace aging trees that are more susceptible to fungal disease. “There was nothing to hold it back because the farms were in very poor shape,” said Maja Wallengren, a coffee expert based in Mexico.
The loss of a farm is also the loss of jobs for the many migrant workers who earn only a few dollars a day. The chain reaction continues, with increases in hunger and poverty in the region. Experts also point to an increase in violence and drug trafficking due to the loss of jobs.
Illustrative image of arabica coffee from Costa Rica sold by Cafe Britt (copyrighted and TM logos ha...
Illustrative image of arabica coffee from Costa Rica sold by Cafe Britt (copyrighted and TM logos have been blurred to avoid any copyright infringement). Photo taken: Sept. 12, 2009
Mariordo (Mario Roerto Duran Ortiz)
“If you frame this in terms of everyone that is connected to the economics of coffee, it’s a very serious problem,” said Roberto de Michele, a specialist at the Inter-American Development Bank based in Guatemala City. Coffee market prices have risen 70 to 80 percent since November 2013, driven by a severe drought in Brazil, the largest producer in the world.
Just how closely tied these countries are to the economics of coffee is evidenced by the Four million people in Central America and in southern Mexico who rely on coffee to make a living, according to the Inter-American Development Bank. And 20 percent of the 500,000 jobs in Guatemala tied to coffee production have already disappeared, says Nils Leporowski, the president of Anacafé, the country’s coffee board.
This latest outbreak of coffee rust in Central America started three years ago. It spread very rapidly, forcing most governments to declare a state of emergency. Last year, the coffee harvest in the region fell 15 percent, and this year, the harvest is estimated to drop an additional 10 percent more.
Lake Atitlan in Guatemala is stunningly beautiful. The weather is really nice because it is almost a...
Lake Atitlan in Guatemala is stunningly beautiful. The weather is really nice because it is almost a mile high. Photo taken: Aug. 1, 2005.
Pedro Szekely from USA
Ana R. Ríos, a climate change specialist at the Inter-American Development Bank says that when the fungus hit Central America in the 1970s and 1980s, the outbreaks were limited to the lower elevations. This time, the outbreak has reached to the very highest altitudes, including the steep slopes of Lake Atitlán, which is at an elevation of 5,125 feet.
Rising temperatures and extreme weather have played a role in the spread of la roya, and this, in turn has ignited interest in developing a heat and rust-resistant plant, said Leonardo Lombardini, the deputy director of World Coffee Research at Texas A&M University. He said it could take as long as 25 to 30 years before farmers would actually be able to plant a rust-resistant coffee plant.
More about coffee fungus, Central america, highend coffee, coffee rust, Arabica coffee
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